A thrilling and jarring power

Last night, I encountered a news article about an event on the Mills campus (my alma mater) with a visiting writer named Shobha Rao. And she said that “any piece of writing is the creation of an atmosphere.” This is an intriguing idea and it connects for me to a preoccupation I have been rubbing up against lately. How as humans do we create/open up/curate spaces of possibility?


Longest Stroke” By Dipayan Bhattacharjee is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0


I know what it feels like when space suddenly closes down, when someone says something and one’s intelligibility in the room, even to one’s self, gets foreclosed. And I know what it feels like when new spaces open suddenly or when you have built a connection and trust over time, so that a space remains open between you and another person even if you haven’t seen them in a year. What I am wondering is how we do that with more intention and consciousness and how we develop vocabularies for talking about it together, so that the creation of spaces of possibility can be a collective enterprise, rather than something that we are passive about. What if the atmosphere, the climate, wasn’t just something which happened to us.

This requires a rigorous attention to the movement of power and the dynamic between us and the world. I think it also entails being present and honest with what one feels and what others may be feeling as well, witnessing the interplay of energies around us and being intentional and willfully curatorial about how we (re)shape that energy. What does it look like to practice justice in our everyday relationships, to respond or be responsible to what Life calls forth from us?

So, let me return to this idea of “the creation of an atmosphere.” We know parts of how to do this with a physical space. I light some candles. One turns on some slow, soulful music to initiate a particular vibe. Maybe the smell of good food cooking transports one to a space of comfort, relaxation and familiarity. I have never thought about writing in this way. This calls me to a deeper awareness of my relationship to the reader/the audience. And it is profound to center the idea that I have an ethical and political obligation to that community of the audience. That we are exchanging energy. How powerful that my words might curate an atmosphere. I am intrigued by this power.


Taza Open Mic” by Bragg’s Untrained Eye is licensed under CC BY 2.0


This past weekend, I read some of my writing at an open mic. This is something I have never done before. I have written pieces to read at rallies, conferences, or in an academic senate meeting. But there was something thrilling and jarring about staring at that jet black stage, a large bright bulb spotlighting a tall black chair. It looked like a space where some legitimate writer would stand and I knew I needed to stand there too and open myself up to engage an audience. To find an audience for one’s words, to enter into that connection is a powerful thing. I was terrified and also drawn seemingly without choice to engage. I felt like a character in a Spike Lee movie, the way they sometimes float above the pavement, little indication that their legs are expending an effort. I have always loved speaking words aloud to people, whether my own writing or another author’s. There is something about hearing words aloud that changes how we engage with them. The cadence and rhythm of our language takes on a new power.

And to read one’s own words aloud means to take seriously their power, one’s own power in the world. I suppose this weekend, reading my work, watching people laugh and cry along with my words, moved me forward in a process. We are in a time when women of color are stepping into our power in whole new ways. There is suddenly a bit more space for our possibility. It is thrilling and jarring all at the same time.